I’m always surprised to hear someone or to read a comment that says that books and politics should never mix. They argue that not everything has to be political. I’ve said those words myself, though not in reference to a book. I have long believed that reading is, by its very nature, a political act. My reasoning is this:
1. Writers, the saying goes, write what they know.
There has been no period in the whole of recorded human history in which war, hunger, disease, or any number of other calamities have not been a part of the daily human experience. Some writers know these things on a more personal level than others, but there is no one, writer or otherwise, who is completely unaware of them. It follows, then, that readers can be (and are) exposed to the full range of human experience through the books they choose to read.
2. Even the most fantastical story reflects reality.
No matter how much writers may want to leave the real world behind them, it is going to influence the worlds they build (see #1). It will be there in the interactions between characters, in the societal structures, and in the daily struggles faced by both. Even when they are trying to tell a story about a better world, the one they are living in will be reflected in the ways in which they choose to make their world better. In the same token, readers who read to escape only make it so far. The worlds they choose to immerse themselves may be different on the surface, but there are elements of every story that will seem familiar.
3. Literature – all forms, genres, and levels – teaches lessons.
It doesn’t matter what the author’s intention was – whether they wanted to teach us something or not. When we read, we learn. We take it in, and we make it our own. We evaluate. We consider. We form opinions. We agree, or we disagree. We pick an example to follow, or we pick one to ignore. Reading = learning.
4. Readers are leaders.
The great leaders of history – the ones we still look up to, whose thinking and whose actions made a lasting impact on the world – were devotees of the written word. And, when looking at the reading list of figures like Gandhi, it seems like the more diverse the reading list, the greater the positive impact their reading choices had on their leadership abilities.
5. Words inspire action.
Words are powerful tools. Writers have long used their writing to influence and inspire their audiences. It is for this reason that poets and authors find themselves imprisoned or exiled. Poet Pablo Neruda faced political exile on more than one occasion because of the powerful effect his poetry had on the Chilean people. He may have even been murdered because of the danger he posed to the junta in control of the country.
Readers are encouraged by what they read. They are given hope. They are angered. They are shocked and dismayed. Some are so moved by the books they read that they take very visible action to promote change in the world. With others, the effects are more subtle, but they are undeniably there. We carry what we read with us.
It is a wonderful feeling to be able to sit down with a good book – whatever your definition of a “good book” may be – and lose yourself in the story. It can be highly enjoyable. It can be overly emotional. It can be stressful – but in a good way. Reading is the thing that many of us do so that we can forget, even for a short time, that there is a less-than-perfect world out there and that we have to live in it. That does not mean, however, that it doesn’t make a difference in who you are, what you believe, and how you behave out in the world.
Reading cannot be separated from politics or societal concerns. We, as readers, can choose to be conscious of that relationship, or we can choose to ignore it. That doesn’t mean that we can change that fact. Nor should we should attempt to do so.